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Vermont Emergency Service Providers Struggle To Recruit, Ask Lawmakers For Help

Putney Fire Chief Tom Goddard stands in front of a truck.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
Putney Fire Chief Tom Goddard will ask town meeting voters next year to start a new fund to support the fire department. Goddard says the number of volunteers has been falling.

Vermont emergency services continue to struggle to find volunteers and paid staff, and plan to ask lawmakers for help.
“Every ambulance service, police force, firefighters — they’re all having a tough time recruiting people,” said Karen Horn, director of public policy and advocacy at th eVermont League of Cities and Towns.

In Putney, the volunteer fire department has long struggled to fill its ranks.

Chief Tom Goddard has been with the Putney Fire Department since 1994. And in that time not only has the number of volunteers dropped, but the core group — those firefighters Goddard can rely on to show up regardless of the time of day or year — has dwindled to three or four.

“At some point very soon, if things don’t change for the better, then we’re at a critical state where we may not respond to calls,” Goddard said.

A few years ago Putney residents began paying firefighters for the time they serve answering calls. And at the 2019 town meeting, Goddard wants to ask voters to pay for medical exams and training for firefighters.

"At some point very soon, if things don’t change for the better, then we're at a critical state where we may not respond to calls." — Putney Fire Chief Tom Goddard

But Goddard worries that it’s not just an financial problem. As Vermont ages, there are fewer young people around to serve.

“The people just aren’t here and we all understand that we need to be brutally honest about things,” Goddard said. “And we need to have serious discussions locally, regionally, at the state level, about what’s going to happen. And until that happens, then really we’re not going to make a lot of progress.”

A recruiting poster for the Putney Fire Department on a bulletin board that asks Do You Have What It Takes?
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
The Putney Fire Department has posters up around town seeking new members.

The Putney Fire Department isn't the only organization struggling with the problem.

Horn wants lawmakers to help.

Ideas include finding money to help communities recruit, offering grants for training, or creating a plan to regionalize emergency services.

But, like Goddard, Horn said Vermont’s demographic realities are working against emergency services.

“People’s ideas of what volunteerism looks like is a little bit different than it used to be, and the time commitment’s huge,” she said. “And it’s kind of a tough time to be a police officer or a firefighter or an EMT. You know, you’re in the limelight a lot. You’re dealing with fallout from the opioid crisis, you’re the frontlines on so many different kinds of issues. It’s hard.”

"Every ambulance service, police force, firefighters — they're all having a tough time recruiting people." — Karen Horn, Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

The Emergency Medical Services Advisory Committee was assembled in 2012, but the legislature last year added new members and asked the committee to gather data on Vermont’s ambulance services.

Drew Hazelton chairs the committee.

“So the challenge is real,” Hazelton said. “Most services in Vermont — greater than three-quarters of services in Vermont — are reporting that they don’t have enough staff available to them. So, the workforce development aspect seems to be a recurring theme, and it seems to be a real issue.”

And Hazelton said an aging population creates more demand for emergency services. According to the committee’s draft report, last year there was a six percent jump in ambulance calls statewide.

The EMS Advisory Committee is expected to have its final report ready for the legislature early next year.

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